Religious politics and the President’s secret agnosticism

In all the speculation about whether the President of the United States is a secret Muslim—a concern matched only be the pre-election fear that his Chicago pastor made him a secret black nationalist—we sometimes forget another possibility: that he secretly subscribes to no religion at all. Obviously, when you’re publicly speculating on a man’s deeply-held beliefs, you can’t just accept what he says. Until we devise some sort of test for determining whether someone is actually a Christian, possibly involving a very large wheel, we’ll have to content ourselves with two things: wild speculation by crazy white bitches and textual analysis.

In the second vein, Ali A. Rizvi offers an interesting argument in the Huffington Post. Props to Smick for the link. Rizvi cites Obama’s classic “folks haven’t been reading their Bibles” speech from 2006, in which Obama points out that government by scripture would restore slavery and ban shellfish, to suggest that the President A) finds religion a useful force for uniting people and inspiring them to good but B) might not believe that an actual god wrote the actual Bible, which serves as a blueprint for the ideal society in both 2010 and 3000 BC but was withheld from humanity for the first 95,000 years.

It sounds kind of retarded when you put it that way, doesn’t it? Obama reminded us of our willingness to ignore certain portions of Leviticus, Deuteronomy and the Sermon on the Mount to expose the absurdity of employing religious politics in a secular democracy—gently, which is why he’s the President and I haven’t gotten a blowjob in nine months.* When Obama said, in the same speech, that “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal—rather than religion-specific—values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason,” he was essentially arguing for the principles western culture adopted in the Enlightenment.

That seems reasonable, but it enraged James Dobson. Missing the point like a board thrown at a dart, the Focus On the Family founder said that Obama shouldn’t reference Old-Testament dietary laws that aren’t relevant to contemporary Christianity, and posed the brilliant counterargument, “Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies?”

Ah, the Tiny Babies Argument. While we’re cherry-picking crazy church people, let’s remember Becky Benson from yesterday’s Times report on the Glenn Beck rally, who said she drove up from Orlando because “we believe in Jesus Christ,” and said that Jesus would not have agreed with welfare. “You cannot sit and expect someone to hand out to you,” Benson said. I bring up this grotesque inversion of the values expressed by Jesus in the New Testament to point out the degree to which, in America, a certain type of Christianity has become a brand name for a certain social politics. Ironically, it is the Christianity commonly professed by the most devout among us.

The Christianity of Dobson, Palin and Beck invokes the teachings of Christ at every turn, yet it is also pro-war and anti-welfare. It is a self-jusitfying, rich man’s religion—the Sunday morning gesture of a George Bush Sr., the oil millionaire who ran the CIA and orchestrated the Iran-Contra Affair, yet opined that “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots.” In other words, it’s Republicanism, and it resorts to Scripture only when it runs out of justifications.

Which brings us back to the question of whether the President believes in God. In The Audacity of Hope, he discusses his a-religious upbringing, and how he brought that agnosticism to his work as a community organizer in his 20s. It was there that he encountered a problem:

The Christians with whom I worked recognized themselves in me … but they sensed that a part of me remained removed, detached, an observer among them. I came to realize that without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart, free in the way that my mother was free, but also alone in the same ways she was ultimately alone.

Obama is not talking about the existence of an omnipotent entity that created the universe. He is not talking about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, a moment when God tells him to put down the bottle like he did for George W. Bush and Glenn Beck. Barack Obama is talking about the church, about the organization of people around faith to take action in this world. In other words, he’s talking about politics.

The difference between Obama’s politics and Dobson’s, of course, is that he doesn’t expect you to roll over and do what he says every time he finds a relevant verse in the Bible. Obama seems to see his Christianity as a tool for leadership rather than control. Whether it is a real Christianity—whether he has God in his heart, or whether he just likes people getting together to help each other and peach cobbler—seems like the second most interesting question in the argument. The first is, in 2010, in an America where the vast majority of Bible-believing Christians vote the same way, what does being religious really mean?

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  1. How refreshing would it be if every politician, when asked about his/her religion, would say, “It’s a secret.”? My preference, of course, would be, “None of your business.”

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